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BRIDGE Project: Progress Report

I’m glad to be prompted into writing, as I think we’ve been remiss about keeping people posted about the progress we have been able to make on BRIDGE, as well as any evolution of our thinking about what BRIDGE could be. I’m hoping that in this and future posts we might address some of the real concerns that have been raised about the utility of the system for the social sector — and the world at large.

BRIDGE is a system to identify as many nonprofit organizations in the world as we can – we wanted to attempt this to enable all sorts of information sharing and new analysis. We started out as a collaboration across our four organizations — Foundation Center, GlobalGiving, GuideStar, and TechSoup — because we wanted to develop a minimum viable product (MVP in Lean Startup terms) to see if it was even possible to develop such an identifier.

You might think — wait, why does an ID need to be MVP’ed? Because with translation and transliteration mixed in, it’s not always easy to distinguish one organization from another, and to determine whether you need to issue one or two IDs. The last 3 years — we announced the initiation of the BRIDGE project that long ago, as Michael Lenczner points out — were spent mashing our individual organizations’ databases together, and figuring out whether there was an accurate and cost-effective way of de-duplicating them. We’ve finally come up for air, and we can now say, yes, it’s doable.

But like with any major product, it cost us more in time and resources than we imagined. We’ve had to ask for grant timeline extensions, and we’ve put in more than anticipated sweat equity to come up with a thin layer that connects our four databases.

The good news is we were able to get it done. Still more good news is now that we were able to do it for our four organizations, we are actively talking to potential new partners about expanding the BRIDGE ID system to cover entities in their own databases. The more partners we can add, the more valuable this thin layer becomes — because of network effects.

The downside is that the process is still somewhat manual enough and sufficiently “buggy” that any partner who joins us will have to roll up their sleeves, put in their own sweat equity, and commit to sharing in the maintenance costs of the BRIDGE system.

What we still don’t know is how effectively we can integrate this utility into our own processes to precisely get at the potential value for the sector, and for the world. We all believe in that upside — for each organization that gets a BRIDGE ID, for each organization that works with nonprofits around the world, and for the sector and society at large. We are all committed to realizing this goal, but we more than anyone else know that getting there requires us to sort out how to sustainably finance the generation and growth of the thin layer of data that constitutes the BRIDGE registry, and to factor in the inevitable time and cost overruns.

The four initial BRIDGE partner organizations — Foundation Center, GlobalGiving, GuideStar, and TechSoup — have all learned through experience that foundation grants are great for the build phase of a new initiative but do not constitute a sustainable, long-term business model. Other unique ID systems like DUNS have been accused of abusing their position of power. We hope it goes without saying that that is not our intention.

So as I write this, I realize that we have really lost track of time, having just come up for air from our three-year slog, and not quite at the point we expected ourselves to be. The sector is understandably impatient to get to the promised upside. Heck, I’m impatient. We’re eager to dive back in, find new partners to join this initiative, sort out how we might pay ongoing maintenance costs, and come up with interesting new ways to leverage BRIDGE.

One last note, in the interest of transparency, all of the funders who have supported the current phase of the BRIDGE system are listed on the registry’s website. Thank you to our fellow dedicated colleagues in the social sector for sharing your concerns, cautionary notes, and suggestions as we continue to develop and test BRIDGE.